Feature

Rice rewards

Five miles from the Mississippi River, almost to the southernmost tip of Missouri, Ryan Riley raises rice outside the little town of Marston. His rice may not appear much different from similar fields full of grain, but Riley began looking at the land a little differently about four years ago.

Though he had been raising rice since 1999, new herbicide technology allowed the grower to consider planting “row rice” as an alternative to conventional flooded rice production. In­stead of growing in water-logged paddies or pans, row rice is planted in fields similar to other row crops and receives inter­mittent furrow irrigation.

“This is kind of a new thing,” Riley said last fall as his combine made another pass through the field, the yield monitor ticking up­ward. “Row rice has made it easier and less expensive for me to get my ground back in shape.”

The Bootheel region is home to the rice industry in Missouri, ranked fourth among the six states where the crop is grown in the U.S. Around 228,000 acres were planted in the Show-Me State in 2020, and the USDA estimates that number to be up slightly in 2021 to 233,000 acres. Neighboring Arkansas is the leading rice producer. Nearly 85% of the rice eaten in America is grown domestically.

Farmers in this area grow medium-grain or long-grain rice using three production methods—row rice, levee rice and zero-grade rice. Deciding which method to use requires careful evaluation of several factors, including soil type and land history.

Aptly named for its planting style, row rice is gaining ground, largely due to the comparative ease of production when matched against the other techniques. While furrow irrigation is a long-held common practice for many producers in this area, applying the method to rice became popular relatively recently. According to the University of Missouri Extension, row rice first came on the scene around 1990, and about 30% of the state’s crop is currently produced this way. Row rice is managed similarly to other grass crops such as corn and wheat.

In prior years, Riley grew traditional levee rice on these same fields. In this more common practice, farmers grade fields to provide a uniform slope, then plant rice seeds in dry soil that is flooded when seedlings reach the first tiller growth stage. Le­vees are constructed and gates installed to maintain floodwater depths of 2 to 4 inches.

Because soybeans usually follow rice in crop rotation, build­ing levees also requires tearing them down before the next spring planting. Row rice, by contrast, results in less labor and dirt work.

“With this, we don’t have to deal with levees, which saves money on diesel for us,” Riley said.

Growing levee rice requires precise methods of managing land elevation, said Jason Greenfield, MFA district sales manager whose territory includes the Bootheel and some neighboring counties in Arkansas.

“Most of the ground around here is on what we call a 10th slope,” Greenfield said. “These fields are precision-graded to fall an inch in elevation every 100 feet.”

Rice is grown in the flat area between levees in what is called the pan or paddy. According to Greenfield, water is pumped from the top of the field, known as “the crown,” and flows down the gradual slope through a series of levee gates or spillways to “the tail” of the field. Once the rice pans fill with water, growers will keep them saturated from June until late August or Septem­ber. A few weeks before harvest, the water is drained to allow time for drying before harvest equipment enters the fields.

Rice loves water, weeds don’t

Weed management is one of the primary purposes for flood irrigation in rice, Greenfield explained.

“Pigweed can’t swim,” he joked. “Other than the fact that rice loves water, this type of irrigation serves as a natural weed management system. With row rice, growers have to increase herbicide usage.”

Riley raises roughly 1,500 acres of both zero-grade and row rice, neither of which require the use of levees. He acknowledg­es, however, that weed control is definitely a drawback to these practices. Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, in particular, is a per­petual problem, and its resistance to herbicides is on the rise.

“Weed control was very difficult in row rice this past year,” Riley said. “The weeds are different in zero-grade rice. With levee rice and zero-grade, you have to watch out for aquatic species of weeds.”

Zero-grade rice is also flood irrigated but doesn’t make use of levees to control water levels. Instead, the rice is grown on a 0-degree slope, meaning there is no rise in elevation. In this system, water is drained by a series of ditches across the field.

“If the ground is so heavy that it’s hard to work, that’s one of the big reasons guys will go zero-grade,” Greenfield said.

Many fields in eastern Missouri counties along the Missis­sippi River contain a type of soil known as Sharkey clay, also called “gumbo” by many farmers. This sticky clay soil creates a bowl-like condition that holds water in furrow-irrigated and zero-grade fields. It works well for rice but can be tough on the soybean crop that usually follows in rotation.

“I’ve seen farmers who could grow soybeans successfully on this ground, but it’s challenging,” Greenfield said. “You have to be able to flush the water on and off the fields fast, because you can kill beans quickly in standing water.”

Riley said he experienced that situation two seasons ago.

“We planted soybeans four times on some of our zero-grade fields,” he continued. “Every time I finished planting, a rain would come. This past year we got lucky. Even though it was as wet as it was, the soybeans got enough size early on to outgrow the big rains that came later.”

Long record of rice

It’s a trade-off, Greenfield said. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages. And Nick Lepold, a fourth-generation rice farmer, endeavors to try all three types of production this year.

Rice has a rich history both in the Bootheel and on Lepold’s farm. The clay and silt soils in this region make Missouri a com­petitive place to grow rice. The Missouri Rice Council reports that the first rice field was planted in the state in 1910, and the crop had taken off by 1960. Lepold’s great-grandfather andgrandfather farmed rice together and were among the first in Missouri to be awarded an acreage allotment from Riceland Foods.

“My grandfather would walk the levees every day with a shovel,” Lepold said. “He would check the rice and also the levees to make sure they didn’t have any crawdad mounds or holes in them.”

Lepold farms 1,200 acres of rice, in addi­tion to corn and soybeans, with his father, Jim, in Ripley and Butler counties. The Lepolds grow levee rice and zero-grade rice and are experimenting with row rice this year. They assess soil type and field history to figure out what to plant where.

“Where we grow zero-grade rice, the ground is so low and heavy that it wasn’t efficient for levee rice,” Lepold said. “We’re trying row rice this year in some of our sandier soils.”

Lepold also evaluates fields for previous disease and weed history. He factors in the cost of seed, fertilizer, herbicide applica­tions and water.

“With row rice, a lot of farmers use their own equipment for spraying and applying fertilizer,” Greenfield said, “but in a flood irrigation situation, they may have applica­tions flown on.”

Aerial applications can be costly—some­times as much as $30 to $40 an acre or even more. Even in his flood-irrigated rice, Lepold uses ground application equipment to pretreat his fields as much as possible. He conserves water when he can for both the environment and his pocketbook.

“I try to be as efficient and use the min­imal amount of monetary resources that I can,” Lepold said. “You can always use that money somewhere else.”

Rice can be tough to grow, he admits. It takes considerable specialized knowledge and willingness to put in the time and labor to ensure the crop’s success.

“There are a lot of management tech­niques and styles, and sometimes you have to use a different one from one year to the next,” Lepold said. “Rice will typically make it in soils where corn and soybeans will not. If you’re able to get your rice out there and get a good stand, you’ve got it made.”

Adoption of new techniques often comes with generational change, Lepold added.

“Everything evolves and changes over time,” he said. “With the internet, we have so much more access to knowledge and research. Just because previous generations did it one way doesn’t always mean it’s correct.”

And, for Riley, that generational change is ex­actly what he has in mind.

“I have a son who wants to take over the farm,” Riley said. “In the last six years, we’ve gone from farming 3,000 acres to 10,000 acres because we were given the opportunity. That growth has also come with some pains, but sometimes you have to take those opportunities at the time, even if it’s hard or not convenient.”

MFA offers many services for rice growers, including fertilizer, weed control products and scouting services. For more information, contact your local MFA Agri Services location.

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Soil Health Partnership digs deeper into long-term benefits of cover crops, nutrient management practices

On the surface, Neal Bredehoeft has seen positive results after seven years of planting cover crops on his farm in Alma, Mo. There are fewer ditches running across his fields. He’s eliminated at least one sprayer pass in the spring to control weeds. He’s even seen a slight bump in yield of corn and soybeans that follow the cover crop.

Deep down, he’s confident the practice is benefiting soil health, too. He just doesn’t have the data to prove it—yet.

The Soil Health Partnership (SHP) hopes to change that.

“When we originally started using cover crops, the big reason was to prevent soil erosion,” Bredehoeft said. “That’s definitely one of the advantages we’ve seen. But we need a better idea of the long-term advantages of using cover crops. I believe the data coming out of the Soil Health Partnership will help solidify what we thought.”

Bredehoeft is one of five Missouri farmers participating in the SHP’s producer-led research to measure the impacts of implementing soil-health practices on working farms. The program, established in 2014, is administered by the National Corn Growers Association and now reaches 16 states and more than 200 farms. Soil-health measurements, yield data, farm management and financial reports are collected from all of these partner sites.

“There’s a lot of focus on soil health these days, both within and outside of agricul­ture, and this puts farmers at the forefront of that discussion,” said Abigail Peterson, SHP field manager for Missouri and Illinois. “That’s what the Soil Health Partnership is all about. Farmers should be the ones leading the way in this realm, instead of having someone else make decisions about their practices, which we know doesn’t make sense.”

There’s plenty of information and research about soil-health benefits, which include improved crop yield, enhanced water quality, increased drought resilience, better flood resistance and lower greenhouse gas emissions. SHP’s goal is to quantify these benefits in a way that’s relevant to farmers—putting data behind the decisions in real-world situations.

“There are a lot of claims made about soil health, but this program is trying to identify what is really happening,” said Adam Jones, MFA conservation specialist. “There’s some good university data out there, but this approach is field-scale type of research. It models the practices farmers actually use and the challenges they face. Ultimately, what I hope comes out of this is a practical, long-term dataset, which for soil-health manage­ment doesn’t really exist right now.”

Through its on-farm trials, the SHP works with growers to explore both economic and environmental benefits and risks of soil-health practices such as no-till or reduced tillage, cover crops and advanced nutrient management. Putting a system in place for improved soil health shouldn’t be intimidating, Peterson said.

“A lot of the first steps are very simple,” she explained. “Transitioning to no-till is great way to start, then incorporating a cover crop, then implementing more advanced nutrient man­agement. It’s a gradual progression, and it’s all adaptive to each farmer’s land, management style and goals.”

In Missouri, SHP data is coming from strip trials that use a control of bare ground versus a treatment of cover crops, randomized across eight strips. Each strip is laid out to be a few combine widths wide.

Regular soil samples are taken each spring to measure chem­ical properties, such as pH and nutrient levels. Every two years, an additional sample is taken for biological indicators such as organic matter, active carbon, soil respiration and soil protein.

The data collection process was developed with input from SHP’s Scientific Advisory Council and is executed by its team of field managers and agronomists. Ever since the partnership expanded to Missouri in 2017, MFA In­corporated agronomy staff members have been providing the soil-sampling services for the state’s participating farms.

“With MFA’s focus on enhanced relationships and customer partnering, it made sense for us to get involved and help where we can,” said Thad Becker, MFA precision data manager. “After all, we’ve got the manpower in Missouri to do the sampling that’s needed. Under­standing more about the benefits of soil health and the impact of these practices will also help us be better consultants with our growers.”

The data collected from Missouri is integrated with SHP’s multi-state database. Test results and reports from the individ­ual farms are delivered to the producers to help them make decisions and manage for improved soil health.

“The trial doesn’t have any value unless you can take a look at the data, and they do get that back to you,” Bredehoeft said. “I’ve seen the results from some of these trials across Missouri and Illinois, and it’s pretty valuable, in my opinion.”

His cover crop of choice is cereal rye, which he plants behind corn, terminates in the spring and then follows with soybeans. He’s also tried planting triticale after soybeans to ground that’s going into corn.

“Putting cover crops ahead of corn seems to be a little trickier, but we’re just getting started on it,” said Bredehoeft, who farms with his brothers and nephew in Lafayette and Saline counties. “Our intent as we go forward is to try to get something on every acre in the winter.”

The SHP doesn’t dictate the cropping plans or management practices for its partnering farmers, Peterson pointed out.

“That’s one of the things that I love about this program,” she said. “We want to adapt to the farmer’s experience level and what they have available. It’s a very practical approach.”

Along with strip trials, the partnership has added side-by-side trials this year to bring a broader group of farmers into the SHP network, she said. These new research models are a little more flexible and less intensive, so the SHP can include more cropping systems and geographies and broaden the depth of the data.

The program was initially set up with five-year agreements but may be extend­ed if growers choose to continue with the partnership, Peterson said. Because of the added responsibilities the trials bring, some growers choose to graduate from the program after that initial term, but long-range research is the ultimate goal, she added.

“Five years is a drop in the bucket for anything in agriculture, so being able to look at those fields that have had a consistent, successful approach and then continuing on for six, seven years or more is key to this project,” Peterson said. “The idea is to have uniform measurement over time so we can create a com­parison model that makes these soil-health indicators a little bit more useful. But, right now, it’s important to realize that this is still a science that’s not quite exact.”

Even without empirical evidence in hand, Bredehoeft said he knows the benefits of better soil health are being realized on his farm, and he encourages his fellow growers to consider some of these conservation-minded practices.

“It’s one of those things you just don’t know until you do it,” he said. “Now, don’t plant rye on the whole farm, but try a few acres of some type of cover crop. We’ve seen some benefits already in the short time that we’ve done it, and I do believe it’s got long-term bene­fits. Time will tell.”

For more information about the Soil Health Partnership and ways you can get involved, visit soilhealthpartnership.org, which offers a wealth of information and resources, or contact Abigail Peterson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To learn more about planting cover crops or implementing other soil-health practices, talk with the agronomists at your local MFA affiliate.

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